Bring new ministers up to speed to fast-track development work

Columnist  | Rajeev Ahuja

Opinion, Oped

The Prime Minister has himself described his new team as a ‘good combination of youthful energy and administrative experience’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: ANI)

The new Narendra Modi government is in a “pre-flight check” mode before taking off. The newly-inducted ministers have just taken charge and are being briefed by senior secretaries and advisers on the issues facing their respective ministries. Some independent experts/think tanks/industry bodies have started proposing a “first 100 days agenda” for different ministries. The development process that had come to a standstill due to the general election needs to be kickstarted with greater vigour. The seven-phase general election may have lasted only for six weeks or so, but the country was in election mode for the past several months. Now that the National Democratic Alliance government has returned to power with a stronger mandate, it’s time to switch gears and get into development mode again. The Budget to be presented on July 5 may actually help the ministers switch gears.

Till just a few weeks ago, the country was in the grip of uncertainty over which party or parties would form the government. Now that uncertainty has been resolved, and the government is getting kudos over the choice of its council of ministers. The Prime Minister has himself described his new team as a “good combination of youthful energy and administrative experience”. In a 57-member ministerial team, 24 members (or 42 per cent of the total) are new, who would need a solid orientation. Further, many of those in the previous NDA government have been shifted to new ministries, so they too would need a good briefing.

The formal briefings will be easy to come by for the new ministers. It’s the informal briefings that will be hard to come by unless proactively sought. The outgoing ministers who have either moved to a different ministry or have been dropped, for whatever reasons, are the real source of that informal knowledge. This informal or tacit knowledge, gained after spending the last few years in a particular ministry, is not well-documented. It rests in the minds of the outgoing ministers. The new ministers need to tap into this tacit knowledge in order to develop a deep understanding of the situation faced by their ministries. For a formal briefing to a new minister, there is usually a well-laid out procedure. But to tap into the tacit knowledge, no such formal mechanism may exist. Tacit knowledge consists of tricky information that cannot be documented for a variety of reasons. For example, the candid admittance of failures or mistakes that can’t be acknowledged or accepted officially. Information about various pressure groups and their interests, about their moles and where they are located, is gathered over a period of time. The outgoing ministers probably learnt it the hard way. There is no reason for the new ministers to reinvent the wheel. They can certainly benefit from this tacit knowledge that already exists in their colleagues’ minds.

In the new Cabinet, some senior ministers probably do not need any informal briefing from their predecessors because they have probably been “in the know” of things. Similarly, some ministers like Ram Vilas Paswan, Harsimrat Badal Kaur, Nitin Gadkari, Ravi Shankar Prasad, who get to retain the same portfolios with some minor changes here and there, also probably don’t need this briefing. But the same can’t be said of many others who are either new to the council of ministers or who have been given a new ministry.

For example, Harshvardhan Singh, the new health minister, may be aware of the health sector challenges by virtue of his short stint in the ministry earlier. But he may still benefit from the tacit knowledge of J.P. Nadda, who steered the ministry for close to four years. Similarly, Smriti Irani, who gets the ministry of women and child development, as an additional charge could benefit from the wisdom of her predecessor, Maneka Gandhi. Likewise, Ramesh Pokhriyal, who took over the reins of the human resources development ministry, could learn a great deal from Prakash Javadekar, who had a significant stint at the HRD ministry. The same could be said of Narendra Tomar, who took over the agriculture ministry from Radha Mohan Singh, or Kiren Rijiju, who took over from Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore, who had a fairly successful stint at the ministry of youth affairs and sports, or Hardeep Singh Puri, who took over the civil aviation ministry as an additional charge from Jayant Sinha. Actually, this could be a fairly long list. Some of these ministers are heading more than one ministry and they have to be super-efficient to be able to do their job well. This means that they have to seize every opportunity to learn and perform.

Fortunately, this being the second term of the NDA government, this learning could flow seamlessly from the outgoing to the incoming ministers, provided it is sought and given in earnest. To be honest, some bit of this informal exchange may already be happening but may not necessarily be getting optimised. Typically, an outgoing minister needs to allow himself/herself enough time to reflect on his/her term in office and distil lessons in hindsight for the benefit an incoming minister. Further, a freewheeling one-on-one conversation between the incoming and outgoing ministers over an extended lunch or coffee is probably the best way to convey such tacit knowledge. Finally, the informal nature of this kind of interaction is essential to keeping this conversation candid.

This informal exchange ought to happen even when there is a change of political party in power, which is a sign of political maturity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in India; nor in this region of the world where democracies are relatively young. Still, a beginning could be made by institutionalising the culture of transfer of tacit knowledge from the outgoing to the incoming ministers. In the corporate sector, a mandatory overlap during leadership transitions is a known practice. But not so in the transition of governments.

There are high expectations from Modi 2.0. Indeed, the Modi government has set ambitious development targets to be achieved in its second term. Achieving these targets calls for speeding up the development process, which is all about taking the right decisions with speed and alacrity. Given this, can Modi 2.0 afford to ignore the role of tacit knowledge to bring its new ministers up to speed?